Simon Fowler Biography by Ross Stapleton Head of Artist Development Virgin Record 1981-1982.
The arrival of what we have come to know as rock or pop music in the second half of the 20th century helped introduce enormous change in popular culture and the way we continue to embrace it in all its myriad forms.
Perhaps in this era of You Tube ubiquity, we continue to look back with great love and respect to the music of our yesterdays and how it resonates as a soundtrack to our lives.
While the 1960's remains the quintessential music decade, the 1980's led by a highly fashion conscious succession of British artists isn’t far behind. And now for more than three decades, leading London-based photographer Simon Fowler has been at the vanguard in capturing some of modern music's most iconic images.
As principal photographer for Smash Hits at the height of its reign as the standard bearer for all things fashionably pop in the UK throughout the eighties, Simon was instrumental in creating so much distinctive visual imagery by which the music is now so celebrated.
In fact since the mid 1970's to the present, through the prism of Simon's highly stylised portraiture is woven an historic visual fabric of so many of Britain’s major stars. Whether through commissioned recording sleeves or official photo sessions, concert and theatre posters, or innumerable magazine covers and national print media featuring his work, its become an incredible portfolio by any criteria.
Combine that with also directing video clips and TV commercials, and in recent years indulging his passion for capturing landscape, nature and abstract images at home and abroad and Simon's creativity shows no sign of flagging.
Indisputably his signature work represents bespoke visual signposts for some of the biggest selling and most popular recording artists on the planet, while spread across a remarkable gamut of British and Euro cultural genres.
This can be seen in his several commissions for such superstar clients as Enya (more than 90 million album sales) or original 'Phantom of the Opera' heavyweights Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman. He's not only shot a record 12 album covers for the effervescent Brightman, but also directed her in promo videos Add yet another Andrew Lloyd Webber star Elaine Paige, new superstar mezzo-soprano Katherine Jenkins, younger songbirds Hayley Westenra and Charlotte Church, a then budding "pop princess" Kylie Minogue, and Blondie's iconic Debbie Harry to the mix, and that's some heavenly chorus!
But this was just the tip of the iceberg.
His operatic clientele is even more of a star-studded Who's Who, including as it does Placido Domingo (once claimed to be "the most important man alive in opera"), Bryn Terfel, Andrea Bocelli, Lesley Garrett, Cecilia Bartoli, Natalie Dessay, Russell Watson, Elina GarancÃÂa and Thomas Hampson. Violin virtuoso Nigel Kennedy and famed conductor Sir Simon Rattle, cellist Julian Lloyd Webber, the Royal Ballet's Melissa Hamilton, Oscar winning actress Catherine Zeta-Jones and Ricky Gervais (in another life).Having also snapped a bevy of sporting stars led by Wayne Rooney, tennis queen Kim Clijsters , Lindford Christie, pentathlon Jessica Ennis to Cyclist Victoria Pendleton and surely it's game set and match for sheer variety?
"Jazzsters" Jamie Cullum and the delectable Katie Melua, not only reinforce
Simon's eye for the ridiculously talented and photogenic having shot various album covers for them, but they also bear out his observation that mainstream popular entertainers tend to be more relaxed or less controlling in front of a camera than his rock/pop clientele.
But then again having spent all his career working in the rock firmament for whom image and its ceaseless reinvention is such an essential ingredient; it’s little wonder such collaborations however demanding become so incredibly rewarding.
Having cut his teeth as a regional contributor for a couple of years, he moved to London to become a senior photographer for leading agency LFI (London Features International) from 1977 under the tutelage and mentorship of Micheal Putland. Simon states that he learnt more in three weeks working for Mike than he did in three years at college. Then as punk gave way to the so-called "new wave" in 1978, he quit LFI to form a partnership with another top photographer Paul Cox, before flying solo in business from 1986.
If Simon had privileged access to heavyweights including Led Zeppelin, Commodores, David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen, The Jacksons, Deep Purple, Blue Oyster Cult and so many more working in conjunction with LFI; he began truly finding his feet from the late seventies.
His portfolio then was as varied as the music it represented. Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Pretenders, , The Boomtown Rats,Squeeze, The Cramps, Bow Wow Wow, Lene Lovich, Polly Styrene, and such formidable individuals as Ozzy Ozbourne and Lemmy (Motorhead). But then he was only getting warmed up.
The 1980's didn't just explode with an eclectic mix of fresh sounds from a jukebox of new romantics, electro pop pioneers and the post punk angst of reinvented Goth, glam and heavy rock. Intently image conscious, they all shared an affinity for artful affectation. Fortunately but hardly coincidental, its most popular practitioners beat a well trod path to Simon's studio door to mutually explore all the chameleon possibilities.
In April 1981 on the very day his first child was born, with impeccable timing Simon and Paul Cox moved into a new studio in "posh" Belgravia (Chester Square).
"Okay the address was posh, but I can assure you the studio less so," he now ruefully confesses. "With so many derelict-looking musos'coming and going, I think our neighbors thought we must be operating a drug den with all this non-stop activity and loud music playing. But in 1983, this salubrious address ended up being turned into very expensive flats, necessitating a move to a Fulham industrial estate. He and Cox occupied the top floor of a three-storey converted 19th century horse stable.
As the decade progressed, the revolving stable door remained rarely bolted as Simon hit full collaborative stride and his CV went nuclear. With his work splashed across the covers and pages of Smash Hits and style icon The Face and other key media, it was if all the major labels and their acts shared the same mantra... "bring us the lens of Simon Fowler"!
Boasting a roll call including The Police, The Human League, Duran Duran (also The Power Station spin-off), Steve Strange, Spandau Ballet, Madness, Haircut 100, Altered Images, Depeche Mode, Blancmange, Classix Nouveaux, Bronski Beat, Psychedelic Furs, omnipresent Boy George, Alison Moyet, Paul Young, Eddy Grant, Howard Jones, Toyah Wilcox, Simple Minds, Simply Red, Katrina and the Waves, Wet Wet Wet, Mike Oldfield, UB40, The Waterboys, Marillion, Talk Talk, Rick Astley, The Bee Gees/Robin Gibb, Rod Stewart, Paul Weller, Dave Stewart, Shakin' Stevens, Jesus Jones, Maxi Priest and The Stray Cats… that's a lot of famous bases covered.
Throw in the flip side of the heavy rock/metal/glam contingent… Judas Priest, Samson, Motorhead, Whitesnake, Iron Maiden, Ian Gillan (Deep Purple), Twisted Sister and Hanoi Rocks… and Simon didn't so much shoot the '80’s as help nail it for posterity.
As eighties British music rewrote the manual for infectious pop in all its sublime manifestations, Simon's lens and imagination experienced a similarly creative joie de vivre. Among so many stand out relationships including shooting the cover for the Christmas 1981 number one (The Human League’s landmark 'Don’t You Want Me'), was forming a unique long-term relationship with one of rock's most challenging behemoths… Queen and its charismatic but notoriously guarded singer Freddie Mercury.
"My first Queen commission came with a trip to Munich in 1981 (recording 'Hot Space' their 10th studio album)," Simon recalls of that first fateful assignment. "I was warned that I might be lucky to only get half an hour with the band if all went well. But at worst it might not happen at all. Welcome to my nightmare scenario!"
Instead he forged a mutually respectful connection over an almost unheard of three-hour session given the normal recording studio time pressures. It was the start of a long and fruitful relationship. A Queen highpoint was being roped in to shoot the band on the fly in and around them filming their ground-breaking 'Coronation Street' video clip spoof for 'I Want to Break Free'. Featuring "housewife" Freddie in drag along with the other Queen members, the clip and accompanying photos outraged the USA who totally didn't get its visceral
British piss taking qualities.
"From that first Munich trip I was one of few photographers the band worked with until the time Freddie sadly passed away. I'm deeply honoured I had the chance to work with him; and obviously the results are there now for everyone to see in a whole stack of wildly memorable images."
For a decade made queerer by the 'Wall Street' "greed is good" manifesto as the yin to the yang of 1985's 'Live Aid' good vibes, Simon's camera captured all its contradictory exotica and excess as well as anybody.
He happily bookended the late eighties before it ran headlong into the Britpop nineties with such rock luminaries as The Stones Roses, Manic Street Preachers, Primal Scream, Simply Red/Mick Hucknell, Underworld, Menswear, Seude and James. Add to that being photographing most of PWL Hit Factory, this meant not only Rick Astley and Jason Donovan, but a coquettish Kylie Minogue (and later sister Dannii).
"One of my driving forces apart from seeking to photograph the best acts of the day, was to also show how I had a much better feel for creating a far more empathetic image to accompany their music than high-end fashion photographers," Simon explains. "Until then they had traditionally been the vogue for the bigger name acts, but I knew I could communicate another kind of visual expressionism. Even more so with a lot of solo singers like Freddie Mercury, Boy George, Bryan Ferry, Paul Young, Mick Hucknell and a piano leaping Jamie Cullum, but especially the women."
And so it proved whether it was early on with Siouxsie Sue and Lene Lovich or later Chrissie Hynde and a more mature Debbie Harry. The always sassy Kylie. A warmly demure and wonderfully neo-classical Enya or gypsy-like ingénue Katie Melua.
But it's his prolific collaboration in both photo and video with Sarah Brightman that has seen him so satisfyingly help push fantastic visual boundaries via her penchant for flamboyance (and some exotic locations).
Looking back on all those years now, Simon is finally in a position to smell the roses in assessing his career satisfaction at all he's accomplished.
"I think you’re so consumed with the creative process at the time, you don't really get a proper perspective for where your own work sits in the context of everything until much later," he muses. "But now as I go about digitally assembling those images for the website and a book I am planning for the future; there's enough distance to now take genuine pride in all of it. I think I have managed to just about fulfill every ambition I could possibly entertain following my graduation. And to put it into the vernacular that has been my bread and butter for so long… it's been a dream gig!"
Indeed… the things that dreams are made of!
Author Ross Stapleton - Head of Artist Development Virgin Record 1981-1982.
Still based in west London he continues to photograph people, his affable manner endearing him to young and old alike, and he is also building a collection of personal images for a forthcoming book of his work, tentatively titled "That's nice, what the fuck is it?" With a second book in the pipe line featuring his Music Archive